Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Popcorn Love: The Jeopardy Scene in White Men Can’t Jump

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 10, 2008

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose..and sometimes when you lose, you really win..and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie…and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose.

To borrow from another Simmons concept, there are some movies that may or may not be classics as a whole, but have a scene that I like to refer to as an Obligatory Watcher, or “O-Watcher” (because everything sounds cool when it has an O- prefix). These are the kind of scenes that if you catch the movie on TV, and it’s at a point where the scene has yet to come on, you are basically under obligation to wait for that scene before changing the channel. Doesn’t matter if it’s an hour away (though it shouldn’t be at either the very beginning or the very end), and it doesn’t matter if you just saw the movie last week–it’s just not a scene you can feel comfortable with having skipped.

Not to run rampant on White Men Can’t Jump–which I supsect might be the most underrated sports movie of the last 20 years–but good as the rest of the movie is, the only O-Watcher in the flick is the scene where Gloria, played by the truly inimitable Rosie Perez, goes on Jeopardy! for the first time. It might not have all that much to do with the WMCJ’s main plot–really, the movie doesn’t even have all that much of a main plot–but in a movie filled with hilarious exchanges and striking action sequences, it’s the one scene that’s guaranteed to be unforgettable.

Of course for this scene to be appreciated, what must first be ignored is how the movie gets there. It’s definitely funny watching Gloria sutdiously memorize her irrelevent trivia (and I guess you could say that I relate a little), but for the first half of White Men, you’re pretty sure she isn’t getting on–that her quest is just a metaphor for ridiculous dreams or some such. Nope, she actually gets on the show, thanks to a cross-court hook shot delivered on a bet by scorned ex-boyfriend Billy (Woody Harrelson) to try to win her back. Considering he only gets one shot at this, and he puts up his car for the other side of the wager, it surely ranks up with Mike McDermott wagering a summer internship on his ability to guess blind the hands of an entire room of poker players (down to the card) in Rounders and Michael Jordan staking his own freedom on the game against the Nerdlucks in Space Jam in the history of Sports Movie arrogance.

But he makes the shot, so Gloria’s on her way. She gets a hysterical introduction (as a “former Disco Queen”–can you list that on a resume, exactly?) up against two academic-lookers, one of which is the reigning champ and has the aggregate appearance of every Jep contestant in history. Though she gets off to a slow start, answering “Babe Ruth” to a question about the NBA’s all-time leading rebounder (“she doesn’t really know sports,’ Billy explains to an incredulous Wesley Snipes), her board is even a bigger dreamboard than Cliff Clavin’s in the Jeopardy! episode of Cheers (for which, I only now just noticed, Woody was also in the audience for), including
Popes, Natural Disasters, and the immortal Foods That Start With the Letter Q. And unlike Cliff, not only does she practically run the board, she doesn’t screw up in the final Jeopardy, ending up flush over 17k.

It’s not quite the most realistic recreation of a Jep ep–much to my chagrin, you can’t just buzz in when you know the answer to a question, and no matter who you are and how well you’re doing, the contestants will never just lean over their podiums and frown at you in disbelief. But watching the unlikely categories that Gloria has been studying throughout the movie pretty much all come up in the game is funny as hell, as it is hearing the super-nasal Rosie Perez pronounce words like Vesuvius and Quahog. And plus, it’s good to see a trivia-oriented scene starring one of the least stereotypically academic people in the world–I wouldn’t want to have to start my own ADL for this shit.

You just don’t see scenes like this in movies very often.

4 Responses to “Popcorn Love: The Jeopardy Scene in White Men Can’t Jump”

  1. Al said

    The scene has always bugged me because of the multitude of continuity errors in it. The scores change erratically throughout the scene, sometimes going down then up, then down again. I know you can get negative amounts in “Jep,” but the score changes while Gloria is trying to answer the same question.

    I am still undecided as to whether Gloria is one of the most annoying characters ever or kind of hot.

  2. Chris Argento said

    Al:

    The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

  3. […] then comes the O-Watcher. Well, not to get ahead of myself, it’s preceded by the movie’s second-best and […]

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